It was 10 p.m. and the only movement was a state police car creeping along the shoulder past a seemingly interminable line of cars and trucks. The bullhorn stuck out the window was supposed to be telling us what was going on, but the voice that emerged, loud though it was, was also unintelligible and I prayed silently that it wouldn’t wake up the boys who were both fast asleep in the back seat of our car.
Until we reached this crowded stretch of highway, our trip been as smooth as glass. As planned we’d picked the boys up right after school and hit the road. I had snacks, dinner, and plenty of activities all ready right in the car. Our goal was to reach Corolla, North Carolina – the northernmost part of the Outer Banks – by 9:30 p.m. To do so, we drove south through the entire state of Delaware, into Maryland, and finally onto this tiny and desolate spit of Virginia where the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel would carry us across 20 miles of water to Norfolk on the other side.
And then, just like that, with no warning whatsoever, the traffic came to a complete halt. We sat in the middle of numerous idling semis, trying to ignore the fumes and watched as ominous clouds rolled across the sky. After about twenty minutes, I pulled out Matt’s iPad and learned that the approaching storm and its high winds had caused a truck like the ones that surrounded us to tip over on the bridge. Until they could clear it, which they couldn’t do until the storm passed and the winds died down, no traffic would be allowed to pass.
Our predicament was obvious. We’d driven too far down the Delmarva Peninsula to think about turning back and trying to find an alternate route – the next closest bridge was the one in Annapolis, which at nearly 200 miles away was almost as far as we’d already driven. To backtrack and take that route would have meant driving all night. So if we’d managed to turn around our only option would have been to go home and call it quits on the entire weekend. And even doing that would have meant trying to cross a wide grassy median in fading light with all four of our bikes on the back of the car. We decided that we had to wait it out – maybe it wouldn’t be too long.
We started out, as one always does, cheerful and resolute. We told stories and read as the light faded. When the storm really hit, we had to roll up the windows to avoid getting soaked and the air in the car quickly turned soupy. Bickering started as we tried to decide what was worse – being stuffy and hot or being wet. An hour passed. Two hours. Finally the boys fell asleep, and, with nothing else to do Matt and I did as well, waking when the state police car arrived with its garbled explanation or when an especially strong gust of wind hit the car.
At 1:00 in the morning the state trooper returned for a slow parade with his bullhorn, clearly doing his best to make sure everyone woke up. It took another 25 minutes for traffic to start moving, and when it did, we realized just how close we were to the toll booths, probably about a mile from where we had been sitting. Once we got onto the bridge, the rest of the traffic seemed to disappear, perhaps into the seething water below us as we drove on the surreal bridge to nowhere. Descending into the illuminated glare of the tunnel halfway across did nothing to jar us back to reality and we rode like sleepwalkers until, just as we reached the opposite shore, we saw the truck that had caused all the trouble. It looked as if it had been cast aside by a petulant child and then stepped on, its trailer dented and torn.
I stayed awake with Matt for the remaining two hours of the drive, across yet another bridge at Kitty Hawk, up a narrow beach road into Duck and Corolla that was in places covered with water from Hurricane Irene and other recent storms. We arrived to find our welcome packet at our condo soaked almost beyond recognition (someone had left the lid to the box it was sitting in open to the elements) but I was just able to make our the code we needed to get into our house. It was only feet from the rental center, but in my exhaustion I mistakenly directed us back to the main road. Somehow we managed to figure out where to go, and once we got there, how to punch the code into the keypad by the door.
The boys, alert after their few hours of sleep, started to bounce off the walls of their room, which had two sets of bunk beds. Before things got too out of hand Matt actually said some choice things that may have involved the words “beat” and “cr-p” (who am I to judge? I put sunscreen on my toothbrush I was so tired) and inspired by fear they fell asleep immediately, as did we, the blissful dark sleep that only comes at the point of total exhaustion. The last thing I remember was glancing at the clock, which said 4:00.
Despite this, the weekend ended up being just fine – better than fine actually. Later that same morning after I dined on a Southern delight called The Big Meaty, we all played putt-putt golf, and the boys rode in go karts. In the brisk air of the Currituck Sound our long stay at the bridge seemed like only a bad dream. But that evening as we crawled into bed immediately after the boys did Matt pointed out to me that we had actually sat in our car at the bridge longer than we had driven. It was, in fact, the very definition of a road trip nightmare: The drive took more than twice as long as it should have. But you know what? Everyone survived. We had a great time. And now we have a story, one that can grow and become more elaborate over time. I’m sure that by the time Tommy and Teddy share it with their children, we’ll have been sitting on that highway for twelve hours and lightening will strike our car.
And I’ll never forget that silent drive across the bridge when the world seemed both vast and miniscule as I watched my husband in profile and caught glimpses of the roiling water underneath. We were allies in that moment, fellow travelers on an adventure.
To me this story shows that even when the unpleasant and unexpected happens, it’s still worth hitting the road. Although I could have done without the truck exhaust and stiff neck, I’m not sorry we embarked on this adventure. And now it’s your turn. Have your family travel plans ever gone awry enroute?
Photo courtesy of Fire at Will via Flickr.